Thousands of people here in Hawai‘i and around the world wear this shell around their neck, but few people have ever seen a live textile cone shell. The famous puka shells are made by the large surf when a cone shell dies and gets ground up in the waves and the only thing that remains is the top, flat part of the shell. These ground-up cone shells often roll around on the reef and fall into “pukas,” which are holes in the reef, and then are collected by jewelry-makers and strung together to make the famous puka-shell necklace.
It is best to only pick up the dead cone shells off of the beach because a live textile cone shell is highly venomous and has been known to kill people. Dozens of people a year here in Hawai‘i are rushed to the hospital after grabbing a live cone shell off of the reef and being stung by it. These shells are extremely beautiful and valued by shell collectors, and can be found in shallow tide pools where they prey on other types of marine snails. The cone shell will flip over a beautiful cowry shell and sting it with its deadly proboscis that is tipped with a venomous, harpoon-like tooth. Once the cowry shell soft body is paralyzed by the venom, the cone shell protrudes its long mouth into the cowry shell to consume it.
Collectors find a large amount of puka shells on Hawaiian beaches, especially on the North Shore, where the giant winter surf grinds up the shells along with the coral which makes the beautiful white sandy beaches. But divers rarely see the live cone shells out on the reef because they often live under the sand. Most of the live textile cone shells I have seen were when I was out night diving, when they come out of the sand and crawl about the reef looking for food. The cone shells are a marine snail, and they move very much like the land snails you see in your garden. But their shell is much thicker to withstand the pounding of the large surf.
The Hawaiians in the past were well aware of the stinging ability of the cone shells, as their Hawaiian name means “dizzy shells” due to how you felt if you were foolish enough to get stung by one.
You can see pupu poniuniu in action in the movie “The World’s Guide To Hawaiian Reef Creatures” on the educational web page underwater2web.com, and also have your children see the cone shells in the sea at the nonprofit Coral Reef Summer Kids Camp with Reef Guardians Hawai‘i run on Kaua‘i. Also, follow the underwater educational series on the Facebook page under my name Terry Lilley.
Aloha from under the surf.
Terry Lilley, a marine biologist, lives in Hanalei. His websites include underwater-2web.com and www.gofundme.com/5urrm4zw.